Things are starting to look up out there! You might even be putting on pants again, which means you might also be scrutinizing how all of your pre-pandemic clothes are fitting you these days. If you’re stressing about gaining the “Covid 19,” you’re certainly not alone: according to a recent American Psychological Association survey of more than 3,000 people, 61% of Americans reported undesired weight gain during the pandemic.
Pandemic-related comfort eating, lack of gym access, and extra cocktails aside, issues with weight are nothing new in this country, and neither is the search for ways to effectively lose weight. Digital tools, like wearable fitness trackers and weight loss apps, on the other hand, are relatively new in the world of fitness and weight loss. In the last few years, digital fitness/weight loss tools have become so popular that 19% of Americans, or nearly 1 in 5 of us, now use them. But is strapping that fitness tracker on your wrist or downloading that app the best way to reach your goals? There have been multiple studies done on these digitals tools, and it turns out the results are very mixed – and, unsurprisingly, it all depends on what you’re using and how you’re using it.
Fitness trackers, in theory, are great little devices. You strap them to your wrist, and they measure things like how many steps you take in a day, your heart rate, how much sitting and standing you do, how many calories you’ve burned, even the quality of your sleep. For some people, simply having an easy way to track their movements, and seeing the amount of activity they’re doing (or not doing) can be a big boost to their fitness goals. As Dr Seth Martin, a cardiologist at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, says “[Having a record of physical activity] gives people information and empowers them to start making changes. And often, their activity level was not something they were paying attention to before they started tracking.”
But, for others, fitness trackers simply don’t do much when they’re used on their own, and they’re certainly not some sort of magic bullet for weight loss. “Trackers are a reliable measurement of our activity, but we can’t rely on them completely,” says Andrew Lane, professor of sport psychology at the University of Wolverhampton. “We can’t expect just to buy one and that’s it – some of the responsibility sits with us too. We still have to get off that sofa and complete those 10,000 steps a day.”
So, for the people who have these gadgets, the question is, are they doing the work and, more importantly, benefitting from using them? Unfortunately, many studies seem to say no. One large-scale study at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, investigated whether using wearable technology helped people lose more weight than other people who followed standard weight-loss programs. All of the participants were asked to diet and advised to increase their physical activity, but only half were given a fitness tracker, six months into the study.
At the end of the trial, the participants who were given fitness trackers lost an average of 7.7 pounds, while those who didn’t have fitness trackers lost an average of 13 pounds.
In another study, participants received the same weight-loss counseling (diet, exercise and support) for six months and lost similar amounts of weight. After the initial six months, all participants received telephone counseling, text message prompts and access to online weight-loss information. Some participants also received wearable fitness trackers and access to an accompanying website to monitor physical activity and diet. Both groups were able to maintain weight loss up to 24 months. However, the group with the wearable technology lost 2-3% less weight over the course of the study.These results seem puzzling. Why would people using fitness trackers lose less weight than those not using them? There’s no definitive answer to that question, but some experts have weighed in, suggesting a few possibilities. For example, it’s possible that seeing your progress could actually backfire: knowing that you burned 400 calories, or that you went over your 10,000 steps, might lead you to “reward” yourself with dessert or some other extra treat. Or, as Andrew Lane suggests, using a fitness tracker could actually have a negative psychological effect: “What if we start consistently not reaching goals set for us by them? Ultimately, it would lead to us feeling demotivated – the opposite effect they are supposed to have.”
Whatever the case, the verdict on fitness trackers seems to be that they are not all that helpful when used on their own. But, on the other hand, they can still be useful tools when used in conjunction with other types of digital aids.
Weight Loss Apps
Now, one of the caveats about many of the studies conducted on fitness trackers is that they often used devices that simply tracked data, and many people now use their fitness trackers to link their information to weight loss apps. And, when looking at many new studies, it seems that using a variety of digital tools, especially weight loss apps, could be an effective way to lose weight, at least in the short-term.
For example, researchers at Stanford University recently looked at almost 40 clinical trials that followed more than 8,000 adults using digital self-monitoring tools, such as apps, to lose weight, and they found that those who consistently used them lost weight 74% of the time. According to Michele Patel, PhD, the lead study author, “At the end of the day, any form of recording can help people lose weight. However, we found that digital tools like apps and websites often keep people engaged for longer, which often translates to more weight loss.”
Other older studies from the mid-2010s also found that participants lost weight, at least in the short-term, when they used digital tracking tools like apps for three or six months. One group lost an average of 2.3 pounds more than a group who didn’t use apps. In another study that focused on whether consistently using an app influenced weight loss, participants reduced their body mass index (BMI) by 1.9 points on average, and each 10% increase in adherence to the tracking tool was associated with an additional 2.6-point reduction in BMI.
So it seems that, as with the fitness trackers, the key here is the word “consistent.” The people who lost weight 74% of the time, and the people who decreased their BMIs, were the ones who used digital tools more frequently to monitor themselves than those who self-monitored less frequently with weight loss apps. And not all of the studies were so positive: some found no difference in weight loss between groups who used apps and those who didn’t, and some found that participants only lost weight if the app use was paired with in-person coaching or phone calls.
The verdict? Weight loss apps and other similar digital tools can be very effective helpers in your weight loss journey, but, as with most things in life, it’s all about what you put into them. Having the drive to use them consistently seems to be the deciding factor in whether you’ll get anything out of them.
Can You Make Them Work for You?
Nobody is advocating that you put all your trust into fitness trackers or weight loss apps, just as we’re definitely not saying you should discount them. It’s all about finding the right ones for you and using them in a way that makes sense in your life. For example, when looking for weight loss apps, download a bunch of free ones and sift through them to find one that seems most user-friendly to you, instead of going on recommendations from friends.
Look for apps with features you’re most likely to use. For example, if you cook most of your meals at home, try an app that makes it easy to upload and save your favorite recipes for easier tracking. Or if you eat a lot of prepared foods, you may want to look for an app with a barcode scanner to make it simple to track these items; some apps even allow users to take a picture of their meal and upload it, and the app does the rest of the calorie-counting work. If you’re the competitive type or enjoy making a game out of things, you can look at apps that allow for networking or provide engaging visual cues to show how close you are to your goals.
Accountability is also important, so look for apps that:
- Feature a community of fellow dieters
- Offer daily reminders that pop up on your phone
- Have personalized professional support
And, if you want to ramp things up and wear a fitness tracker to get some accurate data on your movement and calories burnt, here are some tips to make your device work for – and not against – your weight loss goals:
- Use your fitness tracker as a motivational tool that encourages you to move, and a way to see your movement history – but if you have a bad day, look back and see it as one day among many good days, instead of looking at fitness as an “all or nothing” scenario. Sometimes “all or something” is a better way to look at things!
- Take the useful data from your fitness tracker and use it to keep yourself on track, but don’t use that data as permission to throw good eating habits out the window! If rewarding yourself is a way to keep yourself on track, great! Just do it with something that isn’t food.
- Consider those 10,000 steps that everyone is always talking about as just a baseline for your daily movement. Set a goal that is 2-3,000 steps more, or think of it as separate from your workout.
Fitness trackers and weight loss apps can be effective, and even fun, ways to boost your weight loss and reach your fitness goals, as long as you’re willing to use them consistently, and to find the ones that are right for you. And, remember, your own desire to make changes and improve your health are always the best motivational tools!